Two summer love stories

Love is Strange (R) ★★★

Blink and you might miss John Lithgow and Alfred Molina’s transcendent work in Ira Sachs’ “Love is Strange”. Blink again and you might miss its short stay at your local art house theatre. That is if it hasn’t already left town.  Sachs’ beautifully crafted indie, which had a phenomenal debut earlier this year at Sundance,  is such a simple story that you might shrug it off as something minor, but that’s why it’s so damn good: It sneaks up on you when you least expect it.
Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina) are a gay couple that just got married in New York, legalization has finally arrived and they embrace the moment and the times. However, not long after their union, George is fired form his job as head of the choir because word comes out that he is gay. A crisis hits, the apartment that the couple just bought is now unaffordable, and they must move out and find something reasonably cheaper. Ben moves in with his nephew, the nephew’s wife and their temperamental son, with whom Ben has to share a bunk bed.  George moves in with two friends, who also happen to be gay cops. Their constant partying becomes insufferable. Both are caught in a situation they never thought would be possible, and, with the New York housing situation being absurdly ridiculous these days, a newly found apartment seems very far.

Sachs’ film is a smartly written and assuring one. He bypasses the clichés by preventing his film from heading towards the same old traps and conventional structures that other lower tier movies have fallen into. “Love is Strange” is about many important things confronting the average New Yorker today: community, friendships, relationships, the economic demands of living in New York, what it is to be an artist and, of course, how the ideal of a “perfect marriage” fabricated by our society is a ludicrous one and that finding such a union is almost impossible. There are concessions that need to be made.

Lithgow and Molina are stunning and deliver career best performances. Here are two actors that have been around forever, yet have never been as good as they are here, especially Lithgow, whose aging has brought a real nuance to the 70 year-old painter he portrays on screen. The lines on his face bring out more emotional undertones to an already complex and unapologetic character. Ditto Molina, whose angst and desperation can be heard without words, just facial expressions. Nominations are far beyond the reach of this film but if this were a fair world, Molina and Lithgow would already be at the top of the list of contenders.

Life Itself (PG-13) ★★★

I used to love reading Roger Ebert’s film reviews. Even if you didn’t agree with many of his opinions, you couldn’t help but revel in the incredibly smart writing. He justifiably won a Pulitzer Prize for what he accomplished, yet here was man who had such bad luck with his health. Steve James’ “Life Itself” is an in-depth, intimate look at his final days, most of them spent at a Chicago hospital.  James’ “Hoop Dreams” was selected as the best film of 1994 by Ebert, which in turn helped James’ career tremendously. Here the filmmaker returns the favor by giving us an eloquent and mesmerizing tribute the late film critic.

It is safe to say that the most touching and important scenes of “Life Itself” take place at the Chicago hospital in which Ebert stayed during his final days on earth. There we see a man whose jaw was lost due to cancer and who now has to talk through a computer device. Yet, he has enough optimism to light up an entire room; his health seems to be deteriorating, yet there still is a fire burning to live and enjoy the precious moments.

His passion for life is still there: His brilliant blog was an infallible passion of his and so were the movies. In one scene he is excited by the thought of getting his hospital leave to go to the movies. As a movie buff you understand the pure, unadulterated joy he wants of escaping at the movies, and because of that, the scene has a subtle power.

Many moments in “Life Itself” are hard to watch because you see a man that looks defeated and too proud to admit it on the outside. In one particular scene, Ebert struggles to take baby steps on the treadmill at the physiotherapy clinic and tries to tell his trainer that he’s had enough. Another scene involves his struggle to go up the stairs once he gets home, and the anger that must be boiling inside him that he cannot express in words. Yet, when he speaks through his computer, you sense the un-relinquishing hope that stayed with him until his very last moments, as touchingly described to us by his loving and caring wife Chaz.

Chaz. You can say that she has an important role in the film. The love of his life, the person who stuck by him through the very end. She was the ultimate partner. “Life Itself” reveals itself to be a love story, just like life itself usually comes down to one thing: love. Whether it be through a lover, family, friends, spiritual, sexual, “Life Itself” makes you want to appreciate every moment that is to come and is – warts and all – a lovingly fitting tribute to a great writer.